Tuesday, 5 March 2013

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Let me preface this post by saying that I am in no way a professional photographer. I'm a photography enthusiast with a pretty good camera that I can (mostly!) find my way around. But when it came to taking shots of the Aurora, I was a true amateur. Last year in Iceland, through a lot of fiddling and trial and error, I'd manage to capture some of the colour, but my shutter speed would be a little off. I'd adjust the speed, and the colour wouldn't be quite as vivid. And so on.

This time around, I was determined not to make the same mistakes. Our time with Andy included some Aurora-specific tuition, and I intended to get the most out of it. His advice proved to be priceless, and coupled with the multiple sightings we were fortunate to have, I had the time to play around and tweak elements until I was happy.

I'd love everyone who sees the lights to capture a shot that they are truly proud of, so here are some of the tips I picked up...

Don't compare...

Dominant greens fill the oxygen-rich Lappish sky
We are flooded on the internet with images of the Aurora that can easily trick us into believing that every display is a sky filled with rainbow colours, instantly recognisable. The truth is often very different. The first clue that you may be lucky is a translucent or grey-ish flash overhead, which then fades out of existence. Once you've spied it, set up the camera and wait, as more is sure to follow. Some Aurora displays never actually contain any colour that the naked eye can see, whilst others build up in intensity to those vivid recognisable greens.

Similarly, colour is entirely dependent on location. In Lapland, where the air is heavily oxidised, green dominates, with occasional tinges of red. Andy sighed about photos supposedly taken in the same area with strong blues, purples and violet. This heavy-handed photoshopping was his nemesis, giving visitors unrealistic expectations of what they could expect to see.

Take test shots

A test shot - to my eye, both the cloud and the Aurora were the same shade of grey, but the camera knew otherwise...
Test shots are the key tool of an Aurora seeker. Long before the human eye is able to perceive the lights, a far more sensitive camera can pick out colour, and help determine whether that grey line in the sky is solar activity or just a drifting cloud. On our second evening, we stopped by the side of the road after spotting some extremely pale streaks, and snapped a test photo. There, very clearly on the LCD display, was the tell-tale colour that confirmed that we were looking at the start of an Aurora display. It was difficult to reconcile this with the grey that was actually visible, and I would have completely missed it if not for the camera.

Tweak settings according to your camera and lens

Shoot the stars to check if the focus is set accurately

If using a SLR camera, then the lens is the vital piece of equipment here. Whenever I looked online for advice about photographing the Aurora, they were a few setting 'requirements' given. This is great, if your camera and lens supports those requirements. If they don't, then some playing around will be necessary. Experts advise that the aperture of the lens should be set at f2.8, with the shutter speed varying between 10 and 15 seconds (depending on the light conditions). ISO can usually sit on auto. However, not all lenses have this capability. My wide angle lens has a maximum aperture of f4.0, which drastically alters the amount of light it can let in. As a result, I needed to increase the exposure time.

Fiddling around is the only sure way to tweak the settings for maximum effect. As the moon was very bright during our sightings, I could afford to hover around a 10 - 15 second exposure on f4.0. My ISO spent most of the time on auto, although once I was confident that the other settings were correct, I changed it slightly to bring out more of the blues in the sky.

Another great tip is to set the focus to infinity initially, check it is correct (using stars is ideal - if they are pin sharp then you're spot on), then tape it down with insulation tape so there's no chance of the lens being knocked out of position.

Finally, a sturdy tripod and self timer are essential for preventing shake - if you set the camera up ready to go in the car then you won't have to worry about fitting it to the tripod as the lights dance above you.

Think about the foreground

The dark, snow-hung trees add interest to the shot
Once your settings are sorted out, and you've finished excitedly telling everyone around you that you've captured the Aurora in all its glory, you can think about framing your images. Composure makes a huge difference to the overall effect of your photos, and choosing an interesting foreground brings context and scale. Lapland is ideal for this - the tall, sharply defined pine trees were the perfect accompaniment to the soft, dancing lights, and there's no lack of vast, frozen landscapes. But man-made structures can be just as effective, as we discovered when a band arched over a nearby house on the third night.

Play with light

Becoming more confident with my exposure balance
For me, the real coup de grace was having myself and F as the foreground in one of our photos of the lights. In order to appear as more than a vague silhouette, Andy taught us how to paint with light to immortalise ourselves on the screen. Much simpler than I'd thought, the process involves beginning the exposure, then gently using a torch or headlight to pass over the person (or object) for a second or two, before removing the light and allowing the exposure to finish (continuing to stand absolutely still). The short brush of white captured us in colour without washing out the Northern Lights behind.

Come prepared

You'd rather be watching this then spending your time bouncing up and down to keep warm!
I've already mentioned this in greater detail in last year's post about chasing the lights, but personal preparation really is key to ensure that your encounter is an enjoyable one. Eating a hearty meal before setting out and wearing layers of warm clothes and good boots means you won't spend hours frantically jumping up and down on the spot, and also bring a head torch for adjusting camera settings. Be aware of your surroundings - dashing onto a frozen lake, eyes fixed overhead, isn't the most sensible idea unless you are sure it is safe. Finally, it probably goes without saying, but patience is everything...

Don't forget to enjoy the spectacle!

It's easy to get wrapped up in taking photos - I was certainly guilty of that at times! But don't forget where you are, and what is taking place before your very eyes. Take some shots, then stand back and just admire the other-worldly beauty of the Aurora Borealis. It never failed to set my heart racing, and is definitely one of the most magical sights I've ever had the privilege to witness.

Missed reading about our encounters with the Northern Lights? Check out this post:

Dancing colours in the sky: The beautiful Northern Lights in Lapland

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